It’s Times Like these

A gray, textured wall reads "Ballard Food Bank" in orange letters

We hit a low point 13 months ago.

Any communicator who’s worked on a major construction project knows that groundbreakings are supposed to be celebrations. They usually involve a brief program of speakers waxing poetic about the building’s significance. There are renderings of what the building will ultimately look like and a photo of attendees in hard hats with golden shovels (not sure why they’re golden). There might be media to document the occasion and, if you’re lucky, there’s food.

But the stakes for a groundbreaking are much higher if it’s a building that will have a positive and meaningful impact on the community. That’s why the idea of a fall 2020 groundbreaking for Ballard Food Bank’s new home was so exciting. Minerva Strategies had been partnering with the Food Bank on communication efforts for several months, and we were thrilled that their new home was finally becoming a reality.

A grocery-style market features produce and shelving in an open space
Ballard Food Bank grocery-style market. Photo by Alabastro Photography.

The building promised to be a different kind of food bank built around clients’ needs and human dignity. It would feature a grocery-style market, a community café, a huge warehouse and walk-in refrigerator, a bright and lovely welcome area, and ample space for partner organizations to offer clients everything from medical check-ups to transit passes to veterans’ benefits. Everyone would be welcome in this new hub for hope.

But the groundbreaking got complicated when 2020’s version of the plagues of Egypt hit hard. First came COVID-19, which forced a rethink of the whole groundbreaking concept. Would there be an event at all? Would it be virtual only? Could we gather a very small group together outside, six feet apart, with masks? Was there any way to do this safely?

Then came the smoke. Wildfires up and down the West Coast blanketed the Seattle area in smoke for much of our normally glorious month of September. Going outside at all was somewhere between uncomfortable and unhealthy. Standing outside for a groundbreaking seemed out of the question.

Then came the rains. On the appointed day of the groundbreaking, it started raining—not the pleasant patter of a Pacific Northwest drizzle but a dumping, drenching downpour. The Minerva team and our clients threw up our collective hands and said: We give up; it’s not meant to be.

Representatives from BFB cut the ribbon at the opening of the Ballard Food Bank. City and state officials stand next to the ribbon cutting
Ballard Food Bank grand opening ribbon cutting and tour. WA Governor First Lady Trudi Inslee, BFB Past Board President Julia Weisenburger, and Executive Director Jen Muzia with Reuven Carlyle (WA State Senator), Andrew Lewis (Seattle City Council), Dan Strauss (Seattle City Council), and Gael Tarleton (WA State Rep). Photo by Alabastro Photography.

Fast forward 13 months, and I’m happy to report that things worked out very differently for the grand opening of Ballard Food Bank’s new home. There was an in-person event with a few dozen people, including Seattle City Councilmembers, former Washington State Representative Gael Tarleton, and Washington’s First Lady Trudi Inslee. There were several speakers and a ceremonial ribbon cutting with big [but not golden] scissors. Media toured the Food Bank before, during, and after the event.

Most important, after nearly 18 months of operating as a drive-thru only operation, the Food Bank welcomed clients into its beautiful grocery-style market to browse shelves and choose food for their families. Clients stopped in the Hub to pick up their mail and talk to service providers. The Food Bank hopes that folks from the community will soon be able to share food and conversation in the new Kindness Café. For now, the Café’s delicious sandwiches and soups are for takeout only.

Jen Muzia stands in the Ballard Food Bank looking at a TV news camera.
Ballard Food Bank grand opening ribbon cutting and tour. Executive Director Jen Muzia. Photo by Alabastro Photography.

Ballard Food Bank Executive Director Jen Muzia and her team worked tirelessly to turn their vision into a reality. I cannot convey how hard it is to raise millions of dollars for a dream project while dramatically ramping up efforts to meet growing community needs and completely reconfiguring operations to keep staff, volunteers, and clients safe. Suffice it to say, it is damn hard. The opening celebrations were well deserved and the Minerva team was thrilled to play our part.

One of the silver linings of this dreadful pandemic is that in-person events like the Food Bank’s opening seem like small miracles. Make no mistake: it was still weird. Everyone was masked, respectfully distanced, and politely waving or fist bumping greetings rather than shaking hands. But we were together, in community, having a human experience. And that feels amazing.

The night after the Food Bank’s opening, I went to another opening—the first concert in Seattle’s new [and kickass] Climate Pledge Arena. It was also my first concert in 18+ months. My husband and I went to hear the Foo Fighters, one or our favorite bands. Like the Food Bank opening, it was masked and a little tentative at the onset. But if Dave Grohl can’t make you dance and smile, my bet is that you are dead inside. I danced a lot and, under my mask, I smiled a lot too.

For two days in a row, I was thrilled to be together with folks, in community, having human experiences. If progress against the pandemic continues, I hope we won’t take these experiences for granted. Because they truly are amazing.

To learn more about Minerva Strategies’ work with Ballard Food Bank, read our case study.

About The Author

Joy Portella

Joy Portella

Founder and President

Joy leads the Minerva Strategies team, providing senior-level direction to every client. Her skills have been honed through more than two decades of experience helping organizations more effectively communicate with media, donors, policymakers and other key audiences.

Prior to establishing Minerva, Joy spent five years as director of communications at the international humanitarian organization Mercy Corps. She guided Mercy Corps’ messaging, media relations, and crisis communications, and traveled extensively to document work in global hotspots including the Horn of Africa, the Gaza Strip, and North Korea. Previously, Joy worked for a decade at leading communication firms – Burson-Marsteller, Ruder Finn and SS+K – in New York and Washington DC.